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A Colorado State professor keeps his students busy and lab humming with projects to improve lives and curb pollution.

Bryan Willson has established companies to tackle urban smog in Asia, indoor air pollution in the developing world and global warming. So when the 49-year-old says that he entered engineering “to make an impact,” you could call that an understatement.

A Colorado State University mechanical engineering professor, Willson is the founder of the CSU Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory, the incubator of his many projects. There, on the Fort Collins, Colo., campus, Willson’s students may be experimenting in various corners of the lab with two-stroke motorcycle engines, cookstoves, and equipment for algae farming — all at the same time. “He doesn’t do it alone,” says CSU engineering dean Sandra Woods, “but he is certainly the center of it all.”

These laboratory projects are not just academic exercises. All are destined for companies spun off from CSU by Willson to commercialize the lab’s green ideas. “I see my role primarily as catalyst,” says Willson. “I help launch things and give people lots of responsibility, and that starts with students.”

In turn, students play a crucial role in launching Willson’s ideas. Envirofit International, a non-profit company spun off from the university in 2003, evolved from a senior group project to design a cleaner snowmobile for a national competition. The Colorado State undergraduates — under Willson’s leadership — produced the cleanest entry by fitting a fuel-injection system to the snowmobile’s two-stroke engine.

Willson knew that the greatest potential for their technology did not lie in snowmobiles. In Asia, 50 million-plus two-stroke scooters foul the air with smog. So Willson formed Envirofit with two of his students and Paul Hudnut, the Director of CSU’s Entrepreneurship Center.

Commercially launched in the Philippines, the adapted retrofit reduced hydrocarbon emissions on scooters by 89 percent and fuel consumption by 35 percent.

Still, sales have not come easily. Though the retrofit’s $300 price can be recouped within a year in savings at the pump, it still seems expensive to drivers who bring home just a few dollars a day.

Willson has already seen a quicker take-up for Envirofit’s latest project: cooking stoves. In much of the developing world, poor people cook indoors on smoky stoves and open fires burning wood, dung or coal. The resulting indoor air pollution leads to 1.5 million deaths each year. For Willson, this is a call to action.

So Willson has a dozen students working with Envirofit to design affordable stoves that burn off soot and hydrocarbons rather than releasing them into the air. The Shell Foundation has committed $25 million to Envirofit to help sell 10 million stoves. The first ones have been shipped from Chinese assembly plants to India.

Willson’s latest baby is Solix, a for-profit company that seeks to derive oil from algae. If the technology proves viable, driving with Willson’s fuel would emit no more carbon dioxide than the algae had absorbed in making it. Solix is already employing $10 million in venture capital and 50 people — 15 of them students.

“I see my role primarily as catalyst.” — Bryan Willson

“He’s difficult to keep track of,” Woods says of Willson, but “we just tell him to keep it up.” CSU recently added staff to support his work. Willson’s challenging “real-world” assignments help attract and retain engineering undergrads, the dean says.

And the projects benefit from what Willson says is students’ “tremendous ability to think more aggressively than we do.” For example, one “concept stove” undergraduates built not only cooked food but generated electricity, purified water and even served as a communication device in a stove-to-stove village network.

The engines lab can’t measure who benefits more: the Indian villager with a clean stove or the undergraduate in Colorado who helped design the chimney. But one thing is certain: Bryan Willson is making an impact.

Don Boroughs is a freelance writer based in South Africa.




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